When I was a kid, stuffy older folks were worried about violence in the media. It was the heart of the golden ‘90s, and with a healthy, Clintonian economy, moral watchdogs had little to occupy their energies, so they took out their boredom and frustration on Quentin Tarantino and first-person shooter games. It was one of those soft-button issues that popped up occasionally and then fizzled out once a higher-stakes scandal hit the market. (Cue Lewinsky.) Though the perception of Michael Moore as windbreaker-clad communist was hardened into museum marble by lefty outrage porn like Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), he seemed to short circuit the central nervous systems of both the gun-toting conservatives he hated and the politically guilty liberals by implying in his Bowling for Columbine (2002) that it was actually the news media and the government, not Marilyn Manson or the makers of Doom, who drove the country into the near-constant panic that is the soil from which violent crime sprouts. It’s been a decade since Moore has been a truly polarizing figure, but even if his complaints didn’t convince the government to stop waging wars or the media to stop promoting fear, they at least took the pressure off of violent entertainment. Now one of the most popular shows on TV spills blood and brains like multiple-camera sitcoms spill canned laughs and nobody bats an eye.
It isn’t that, without the finger-wagging of the demagogues, we’ve lapsed into a culture unencumbered by restraint or guilt in our ravenous pursuit of bloodporn. It’s in fact quite the opposite. Without those self-righteous voices decrying any depiction of violence as an endorsement of it, we’ve been set free to explore the true nature of violence, its causes and effects. The Walking Dead can start a conversation about the morality of its characters without getting pretentious or being forced to avoid the reality of the world in which it takes place. It’s the zombie apocalypse; there will be blood. But the walkers are merely window-dressing on a story that’s really about what violence and fear do to people. This world isn’t thrilling and cartoonish for our characters; it’s a prison (sometimes literally). Violent attitudes arise out of constant terror and become habit without warning. Nihilistic, militaristic ideologies are adopted because they seem necessary. The corruption has run so deep that by now we’re all living by Enid’s JSS method: Just survive somehow. Nothing else matters.
But think about the violence in these first episodes of TWD’s sixth season: every time a violent act is committed by our guys with real fervor—with the desire to kill rather than the simple need to—there’s always someone looking over the shoulder of the assailant, casting guilty glances. It began with Pete’s execution at the end of season five and continued with Rick’s (ultimately correct) decision to take out Carter in last week’s premiere. In both instances, Morgan looked on helplessly, not knowing how to register these actions taken out on people who were still alive. Our group has been tested time and again by the long, hard road to Alexandria, and with their full conversion to JSS thinking a new perspective has become necessary. But the show is smart enough not to let Morgan’s doctrine of (relative) peace be his only dimension. He was able to incapacitate the Wolves once upon a time, but leaving them alive allowed them to jump through a tiny crack in his morality. If all life is precious, how much can you sacrifice when the lives of your tribe and yourself are threatened and killing is the only way out?
Jessie got a chance to grapple with the hard truths as well. Ron argues that Rick is dangerous, punching a gap in one of the show’s biases, which is that we don’t honestly know the extent of Pete’s terror over his household. What’s worse: the abuse of a father or the iron reign of a dictator? Is there a difference in such confined quarters? Is a man who doesn’t hesitate to impose violence on his family better than a man who doesn’t hesitate to kill the moment he’s given an excuse? Rick may have sung the praises of the broken windows theory, but it was also he who broke the windows and exposed the great Alexandrian lie, the lie that was perversely benefiting the townspeople. Deanna needed Pete’s surgical prowess and was thus content to look the other way regarding his domestic abuses, especially when her Option B turned out to be Denise and her scalpel-induced panic attacks. The presence of Eugene and his constant, welcome levity in Denise’s improvised operating room is symbolic of the farce that’s being played out here. Post-Rick Alexandria might be better prepared for battle, but it isn’t the well-oiled machine it was when we were pushing all the bad stuff beneath the surface and letting it fester there instead of out in the open.
Denise’s replacement of Pete is important in more ways than one. We wonder: Would Rick have gone so wild west on Pete if the abuser had been married to Denise instead of Jessie? We don’t talk about sex very often on TWD for obvious reasons—it’s hard to keep stiff when there’s a decomposing flesh-eater behind every tree trunk—but now that Rick has (or thought he had, until the attack of the Wolves) a well-fortified realm over which to wield power, he’s going to want a war bride. It didn’t take him long to corner the prettiest gal in Alexandria, and it’s hard to ignore the troubling fact that Pete’s abuse seemed to work in Rick’s favor until Jessie told him last week that it was probably too soon for him to start parenting her kids. I wrote last season about the twisted cocktail of alpha-urges that contributed to Rick’s recasting of himself as Jessie’s savior, her knight in bloodstained armor. If Jessie had been played by Elizabeth from New Girl, would Rick have campaigned so earnestly for Pete’s death? How fair a damsel doth a Ricktator befit?
Then again, you come to find in the Wolf-inspired panic that Jessie’s house is tricked out with a closet that locks from the inside, and we know why that’s there. Jessie’s wounds are on full display when she’s forced into hand-to-hand combat with one of the Wolves. She kills with such fervor that you see all of her fear, all of her anger, all of the desperation of life before and after Pete’s tyranny—and all with Ron standing there, Morganlike, seeing both the damage done by Pete and the irreversible tide of life under Rick.
We have to wonder how Rick will react to the invasion of the Wolves. It’s hard to imagine he’ll take responsibility for leaving Alexandria essentially undefended while he took half the town to zombie Woodstock—especially once it’s discovered (if it’s discovered) that Aaron’s abandoned backpack was the culprit. Another excuse to chide the Alexandrians for their foolishness and ill-preparedness. Another excuse to tighten his grip on their once-idyllic settlement. We’re really testing the Machiavellian waters here. Is it better, after all, for a Ricktator to be feared than loved?